Amanda Eller, the woman who survived on strawberry guava, plants and stream water for 17 days, said her ordeal in the Maui wilderness was a spiritual journey and ultimately her destiny.
A wheelchair-bound Eller, appearing thin and with bandages on her feet, took questions at a news conference Tuesday morning for the first time since she was found Friday by search volunteers miles into the rugged Makawao Forest Reserve.
The press conference was scheduled in between doctor’s appointments at Maui Memorial Medical Center, where she has been treated for a broken leg and infection due to severe sunburn on her feet and ankles.
With her parents and siblings by her side, the 35-year-old physical therapist and yoga instructor both cried and laughed as she recounted her journey through the woods and thanked the hundreds of people who joined in the search.
She also took time out to offer a prayer for yet another lost Maui hiker: Noah Mina, 35, who is missing in the area of Kapilau Ridge Trail in the West Maui Forest Reserve near Wailuku.
Eller got lost May 8, leaving her cellphone in her car before striking out on a 3-mile hike or jog. At some point, she said, she felt compelled to lie down and meditate while staring at the sky. When she got back up to continue on her way, she became disoriented.
“The Makawao Forest, anyone who’s been there searching, I mean, you turn your head one way and it looks exactly like the other way. Which way is north and which way is it to my car?” she said.
She didn’t know, and she said she relied on “a strong sense of internal guidance” to take her back to her car. Instead, it would lead her across five miles of extremely rough and wet terrain.
Eller, who said the spiritual work she has done over the past four years has transformed her as a person, said her psychic recently told her that she’s ready for a “spiritual boot camp.”
“I do so much spiritual work on a daily basis that I didn’t think I would be thrown into the gauntlet. I thought I was doing enough work,” she said.
But it was the gauntlet for her, she said. Over 17 days she tried to make herself visible to helicopters. She slipped and fell, breaking her leg. She foraged for fruits and edible plants, some to eat, some to cover herself for warmth at night. She became hobbled, weak and badly sunburned.
Eller said she grew to become “fully present” as she confronted the reality and challenges of every day.
“Every day was a different lesson, every step a different lesson” she said. “If I misstep, I sprain my ankle. If I misstep, I twisted my knee. If I misstep, I cut myself. It’s like one step closer to not being alive.
“At some point something slapped me across the face and said, ‘Whoa, wake up. Put your feet on the ground and pay attention to what’s happening. It’s slippery out there. It’s dangerous out there. You can hurt yourself. You could die. Take this seriously.’”
She had to shrug off a victim mentality, Eller said.
“The thing that kept coming in over and over again … was that this is not punishment. This is your destiny, this is your journey. This is your path.”
On Day 17, when the helicopter appeared out of nowhere, she had a plant in her mouth that she had planned to eat for dinner.
“I don’t know how they spotted me. It’s a pure miracle. It’s a miracle — on a tiny piece of rock on top of the waterfall.”
Looking back, she said the ordeal made for a bigger purpose to her life.
“This whole journey was extremely spiritual for me,” Eller said. “I never felt alone and I never felt fearful. It was the opportunity to overcome the fear of everything. It was an opportunity to strip away all the elements of this modern world and see what was left. And there was such an amazing feeling in that.”
“This is so much bigger than me. I’m so grateful I’m alive.”
She said her story had inspired a movement.
“I am so stoked that my story can inspire others. I mean, truly, like that’s how I live my life. I want to be an inspiration to others. I want to light a fire under people. I want them to be so stoked to be on planet Earth. I want them to happy to live here. That is my goal.”
Eller acknowledged that some people were skeptical about her boyfriend’s story, but she isn’t paying attention to the internet. “I want to focus all of my energy on the positive. I’m just ignoring it.”
Asked about what she thought of the 72-hour limit for searches by Maui County authorities, Eller said she wished they would expand their policies.
What would she do differently?
Eller said she would take a cellphone. She said she usually over-prepares for such outings.
“But for some reason on that day I did not,” she said. “That’s why I believe it was part of my spiritual journey.”
Eller said she has at least another four weeks of rehab, including a time when she will graduate from her wheelchair to crutches. She said she wants to start seeing her physical therapy patients as soon as possible.
The concepts of aloha and ohana are live and well on Maui, she said.
“This place is amazingly beautiful, and we’re so lucky to live here. And we’re surrounded by people who care about each other. I think we’re all blessed.”